Wise Owl Poetry

War Photographer by Carol Ann Duffy.

I believe that War Photographer is an outstanding piece of work. Duffy was inspired to write this poem, first published in 1985 in her book Standing Female Nude, after meeting 2 war photographers at a party and becoming fascinated and horrified, probably in equal measure, by what they did for a living.

In the poem, which is full of imagery and pain, she contrasts the quiet isolated moments of the developing process in the dark room with the horrific scenes captured in war that are about to emerge as black and white images beneath the photographer’s hands……ready for publishing in one of the glossy Sunday supplements.

It is this antithesis that shocks readers – here is a man who travels to war zones around the world, in order to record human suffering. Whilst doing his job he has no time to think, to analyse, to react to the images of conflict, misery and death that he is capturing. It is only one back home that he is able to reflect as the enormity of his work hits home.

The war photographer, like the war artist before him, is not there to judge, intervene or help. His role is simply to capture the images of conflict and reveal the barbarity of war. Whilst showing the reality of war and its impact may be essential to keep the public appraised of the truth, there is a moral ambiguity in all this – can it be right to be paid for capturing such images; do we really need to see, in visceral detail, the horrors of war ?

The poem opens in the photgrapher’s dark room, where he has laid out his rolls of film in neat, orderly rows, perhaps to gain some semblance of order over the chaotic scenes he has captured within the films. The room is softly lit with a red light, giving almost a religious feel to his actions. His hands, which have always been so steady when in the theatre of war, busy capturing and recording the images he photographs, now begin to shake, as he remembers all the bloodshed, the desperation and horror he has witnessed.

When the images begin to emerge from the developing fluid there is an almost ghostly feel to the poem, as features and detail begin to take shape; here is one shot of a soldier dying on the ground, his wife pleading with the war photographer with her eyes, to help, to stop this happening. He can hear her wails of grief, as he continues to take images of this dying man, a scenario frozen in time which captures in one photograph, the tragedy, misery and sheer futility of war as the blood seeps into the ground.

The final stanza moves forward, the photographs all now developed, ready to be sent through to the editor of the newspaper. Out of hundreds a few images will be chosen to be published within a Sunday supplement, perhaps showing different perspectives of that particular war, revealing elements of conflict to a readership that may care, but equally may flick through the pages with little or no reaction. Maybe a shrug, maybe a horrified glance of the eye, maybe a sharp stab of pain, maybe with indifference. The readers, from the warm and safety of their homes, can simply carry on with their everyday lives; roast such, meeting friends, the clink of glasses on a Sunday afternoon.

Our final image of the photographer, once more airborne travelling to another conflict zone, shows a man conflicted by the irony of his job. His impassive face shows he accepts his role he will perform it diligently and professionally, but there is a feeling he has seen too much, he has felt too much, his gaze is weary. War Photographer is a powerful comment on society which shows both the agonies and realities of war, where children are blown up by landmines, and how such images are viewed by a public possibly desensitised by the plethora of images of war so readily accessible. The war photographer straddles these two realities: one one side he experiences a world which is torn apart by war, where soldiers and innocent civilians dies and one where everyday agonies are simply absent.